Is a bit of discomfort good for you? Is it character-building? Are you a better person because of it? As I watch my son prepare for his Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award Expedition in the Lake District this weekend, I ask myself these questions. It has been raining for the best part of a month and the forecast for the next few days is for it to continue. He will be walking for five days in the Lake District carrying a heavy pack and sleeping in a wet, damp tent. He will not be doing this because he is miles from civilisation or because he is too poor to afford bus fare or a decent bag of chips. He will be doing it in order to get an award which is increasing becoming an essential component of university entrance. The chances are he will not enjoy it, nor will the experience convert him to the joys of nature. It is more likely to lead him to associate natural beauty with discomfort and misery. And nobody seems to stop and ask "Why?"
Oh I have seen all the arguments, and as far as I can tell, none of them stand up to even the most preliminary analysis. Proper teamwork can only result from a situation which is physically challenging. Bollocks. A harsh environment provides the necessary test-bed for the development of leadership skills. Rubbish. Participants gain additional confidence and satisfaction by overcoming challenges. Crap. Where does all of this come from? There will probably be plenty of material which claims that walking too far carrying too much is good for you, but most of it will have been written by people who run Outdoor Centres or organise Adventure Award Schemes.
At the end of the day it all boils down to a belief that a bit of discomfort is good for you. It is a kind of watered-down, twenty first century descendant of the ideas about flagellation in the Middle Ages. In those days you could help to atone for disasters like the Black Death by walking through the streets of Europe whipping yourself. Nowadays, you can help to atone for global warming, the breakdown of social order, and deforestation by carrying a big pack through the rain soaked valleys of Cumbria.
As I take him down to catch the coach on Friday morning, I will say something cheery to him like "Don't worry, you'll enjoy it really". But I know he won't.